For months Kansas City police Chief Rick Smith ignored evidence requests from the prosecutor’s office regarding officer conduct while arresting transgender woman Breona Hill last year.
Despite video evidence to the contrary he stuck by his officers’ incredulous story that Breona Hill caused her self grievous injury by repeatedly slamming her own face into the pavement while being arrested.
Smith almost got away with this apparent coverup by exceeding the statute of limitations in the case.
This was a highly unusual tactic that appears aimed at protecting his officers from legal scrutiny, reports the Kansas City Star.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has raised serious concerns about the police chief’s decision to withhold probable cause statements in two incidents involving officers, telling Smith in a pointed letter that his department’s actions were limiting her ability to file charges and ultimately could undermine trust in law enforcement.
The letter, obtained by The Star Editorial Board of the Kansas City Star, suggests that Smith’s actions delayed the prosecution of three Kansas City police officers.
“By withholding a probable cause statement for an officer-involved incident, you are blocking the prosecutor’s independent review of the facts under the law,” Baker wrote to Smith in April. “Our system of government depends on checks and balances and oversight. Without such, the public will not have confidence in our decisions.”
Other prosecutors and legal experts agreed that Smith’s actions made it more difficult for the prosecutor to do her job, saying that withholding probable cause statements also created the appearance of a cover-up.
One of the cases in question involved the arrest of a transgender woman last year. Smith said an internal investigation found the arresting officers did not break the law. Officers claimed the woman, who was pinned to the ground by police, pounded her own face onto the pavement. A video shot by a passerby tells a much different story.
Smith could not comment on the second case, the officer-involved shooting death of Cameron Lamb, because it’s an ongoing investigation.
The Kansas City man was killed last year by police in his own backyard after an altercation with his girlfriend near 35th Street and College Avenue.
In February, Baker sought a probable cause statement to file charges against a police detective involved in the Lamb case but was denied. One month later, a request to file criminal charges against officers Matthew Brummett and Charles Prichard in connection with the arrest of the transgender woman, Brianna “BB” Hill, was also rejected.
Baker criticized Smith for stonewalling in both investigations. The chief’s tactic nearly precluded Baker from pursuing justice in the Hill case due to the statute of limitations.
A Jackson County grand jury recently indicted Brummett and Prichard on fourth-degree assault charges.
“There was a conflict regarding the process of how that case was presented to the prosecutor’s office,” Smith said. “That conflict did not affect further court proceedings.”
Brummett and Prichard were summoned to appear in court in August and face up to a year in jail.
GRAND JURIES ARE A PUBLIC TRUST ISSUE
Police rarely say no when prosecutors ask for a complaint against suspected offenders, one of two legal options used to file charges in a criminal case.
A grand jury process is the other option. But as Baker noted in her letter to the chief, “the grand jury is shrouded in secrecy by rule of law, which may produce mistrust in our community due to the lack of transparency.”
Tim Lohmar, prosecuting attorney for St. Charles County and president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said a law enforcement agency denying the prosecutor’s request for a probable cause statement is a rarity. The result, he said, is that Baker has been hindered from doing her job, “which is to make the ultimate determination whether or not a crime occurred.”
Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University in New York and a former prosecutor who studies prosecutorial misconduct, said Smith should not play hardball when it comes to legal scrutiny of his officers..
“That looks bad,” Gershman said “That looks like a cover-up. Whether it is or not, it looks like a cover-up.”